The last time I had the pleasure of visiting with Jerry Berta, I found a man worn down like a president after two terms in office. On my previous visit in 2000, he still wore his trademark white horned rim glasses, and he still had energy and ebullience I saw when I first shook his hand in a Boston art gallery in 1990. By 2002, I almost didn't recognize the guy. The man who brought Rosie's Diner to Michigan had had enough. He wanted to go back to making art, not food.
I could almost bank on Jerry's unbridled enthusiasm for all that he did, and his ability to render golden everything he touched. As the legend now goes, Jerry started out as an artist, sculpting clay into whimsical but recognizable icons of roadside Americana. During his youth in Flint, Michigan, he frequented Uncle Bob's Diner, which became his in 1987. Jerry bought the diner to truck across the state to his eleven acres on 14 Mile Road in Rockford, setting it up as the Diner Store, his workshop and studio. At that time, the desolate location north of Grand Rapids was little more than a remote feeder to exit 101 on the US Route 131 expressway.
So many people stopped by the diner looking for something to eat, he figured it made sense to set up another diner to serve actual food. Jerry mounted a large neon sign that said "Diner Store," but people only saw the word "Diner." Why else would someone put a diner there if not to serve meals?
Jerry had a long string of successes in his career starting from the day he came home from his first art fair with over $2500 in cash, a sum that promptly silenced any further criticism from his previously disapproving father. How hard could this be?
Jerry envisioned the genesis of a genuine, contemporary roadside attraction: two diners in one spot. The second diner, as we all know now, wasn't just any diner. It was the diner used as the setting for the much-loved Bounty Paper Towel commercials featuring the late, great Nancy Walker. At the time, the diner's owner Ralph Corrado called his diner the Heartland Diner, but in a classic case of life imitating art, he would redub the diner Rosie's Heartland Diner, and then just Rosie's.
In 1990, Jerry came calling, making a fast deal with the tired Corrado, eager to redevelop the property. With great fanfare, Jerry soon shipped the double-wide Paramount to its new home. Soon after Rosie's landed in Rockford, the state's news media couldn't get enough. Michigan got its first real operating diner in decades, and a famous one at that. With the state mired in a recession, the good news played well and made Jerry the biggest restaurant success story of the year. Lines snaked out the door.
At one point during all this hoopla, Jerry threatened to close the diner when yet another TV stationed wanted to run a feature. He simply could not take the business. He resorted to removing tables from the diner in order to reduce its capacity, reasoning that people will wait in line, but they won't wait at their table for service. Jerry built it, and indeed, they did come.
Jerry's blockbuster move all but got me into the "diner for sale" business. Suddenly, I started receiving calls and letters from prospective diner owners all over Michigan looking to duplicate Jerry's success. Within five years of Rosie's opening, the Yorkville Diner, Pal's Diner, the Sidetrack Cafe, the Rail Diner, and Suzanne's Diner all moved to Michigan. Jerry also bought and moved the former Uncle Wally's Diner found in a field in upstate New York, which he never opened but sold to a couple that moved it up to Grand Marais, Michigan in 1998.
Jerry Berta became the diner industry's chief guru. Indeed, a great deal about what he learned servicing customers in the art world worked well in food service. If a customer broke a sculpture, he'd replace it for free. In the diner, if you didn't like your meal, he wouldn't let you pay. Unlike almost every short order restaurant in existence, he accepted personal checks. In his experience (and mine), about one customer a year bounced a check, netting a loss of less than $30. Making it easier for customers to pay more than made up the difference.
One year for Veterans Day, he called up the local VFW and offered free meals for all veterans. He never publicized the gesture, and refused to participate in any media reports about it. He filled the diner with customers from all over the state and made hundreds of new regulars as a result.
In 1993, he expanded his operation with yet another diner, purchasing the former Garden of Eatin' Diner in Fulton, New York intending to set it up as an upscale diner right next to Rosie's. At least a half-dozen other diners embraced that concept, with most failing. Only the Empire and perhaps Boston's Blue Diner had any true staying power. Others like the Elm Tree in New Haven and the Flash in the Pan Diner in Danvers, Massachusetts, shut down after relatively short runs.
In Jerry's case, his plans involved setting up an upscale concept right next to something more traditional. Even Jerry himself slyly remarked that the desserts came out of the same kitchen, but they'd cost five dollars more at the Delux Diner. Customers, however, weren't fooled, and two years later, Jerry suffered his first failure.
In the meantime, he had opened his miniature golf course. At the time, I truly believed this idea had legs. There existed no other course like it. Jerry, and his wife and fellow sculptor Madeleine Kaczmarczyk designed a course inspired by their respective artistic styles — Jerry's diner iconography and Madeleine's tea pots. I expected that within a few years, Rand McNally would mark its maps with this attraction.
Returning October, 2000, I found a more beleaguered Jerry. While he still looked and acted like Jerry, I didn't have to spend much time with him to see he wanted out. I knew few people in the world more creative and ambitious than Jerry Berta, but managing a restaurant had taken its toll. Jerry exemplified the classic entrepreneur in that he could get things off the ground, but he couldn't keep them safely in orbit. The day-to-day grind of diner operation brought him little satisfaction, and soon it brought him less income.
Jerry shut down the golf course before my 2000 visit, and nature had already begun to reclaim the space. The Delux Diner also sat idle, while Rosie's still held its own, but by then I could see Jerry treading water looking for a life boat. A previous attempt to hire a manager for the operation had almost lead to catastrophe. "I almost lost everything," Jerry admitted to me. He said he spent another year rebuilding the business, taking even more out of him and him more away from what he loved most: Making art.
He had also recently endured the legal nightmare that exploded after licensing the Rosie's name to a Colorado business group seeking to establish a chain of Rosie's Diners. The partnership would order three new diners from Paramount Modular Concepts of Oakland, New Jersey, the successor to the company that built Rosie's, with two new units making their way to Colorado by 2000. However, by that time, the partnership began to unravel. Hearing the story from Jerry's point of view, it sounded like the partners sought to block Jerry from further involvement in the enterprise. They purchased licensing rights from Jerry to use the Rosie's name and gave him a say in the direction of the business. But in emails that Jerry shared with me, they clearly regarded him as a rube, a hippie artist they could conveniently dismiss.
In 2000, I visited the Aurora, Colorado location. I found the staff helpful and my breakfast burrito acceptable, but the confusing menu with over-kitschy item names made me wince. Paramount did a fine job recreating the original 1946 masterpiece, and you can still go to the diner today, but you'll find no mention of Jerry. Except for putting the waitstaff in Hawaiian shirts (Jerry's preferred couture) and the general look of the diners themselves, the new Rosie's Diners became poor imitations of the concept. The new diners included none of Jerry's ideas.
The last time I visited Jerry in 2002, I almost didn't recognize him. Age and the trials of his diner ventures had taken a visible toll. I arrived just in time to meet Tammi Fitzgerald, who just bought Rosie's from Jerry, with Jerry holding the mortgage. Sadly typical of these arrangements, Jerry got the diners back, but he kept Rosie's in operation. In 2006, he put up the whole parcel up for auction, diners and land — even the Diner Store — in 2006.
With a winning bid of $495,000, Randy and Jonelle Roest became the next owners, promising to bring Rosie's back to its glory, golf course and all. Soon after the sale, even Guy Fieri came to town, spotlighting the diner for "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives," but even the national spotlight couldn't maintain the momentum. The couple would later divorce, with Jonelle getting the diner and her maiden name back. Jonelle Woods never completed her plans to restore the golf course, but she did announce plans to convert the long-shuttered Delux Diner into a sports bar and turn the Diner Store into an ice cream parlor. Despite these efforts, the grapevine didn't send in a lot of happy reports.
In October 2011, Woods locked the doors and left vendors and employees holding the bag. According to MLive.com, official records listed Wood's father as the owner of the property, which again landed on the auction block in April of this year. This time, three closed, worn-out diners selling in a depressed market netted a mere $125,000, about a quarter of the last sale price. The new owner of Michigan's once-greatest roadside attraction was Aaron Koehn, the 31-year-old son of a wealthy car dealer.
MLive.com's last story on the topic asks readers to send Mr. Koehn ideas on what to do with the three diners, and so far readers have chimed in with such gems as creating a 1950s-style restaurant park, offices for a "class car resale dealerships," or moving them to Chicago. Some commenters on the MLive site seem to have high regard for Mr. Koehn, but he has no plans to run a diner. He bought a chunk of prime real estate at a bargain price, and diners happen to sit on it.
We already have far too many diners sitting around unused looking for capable owners. And now, we have three more. The former Diner Store had little left to it but its basic structure and half its original counter when I last visited. Jerry made significant changes to the Delux, but I understand it's in serviceable condition. Rosie's, the crown jewel of the collection, will need significant restorative work. Reader reports filtering in over the past few years painted a sorrowful picture of neglect. All three diners will likely need at least $200,000 worth of work to restore them to original condition and make them compliant with current codes.
Mr. Koehn seems to have the resources, but not the inclination to preserve these structures. I suppose I can always hope inspiration strikes him. I can hope that he gets bitten by the same bug that stung Gordon Tindall, or Steve Harwin, or maybe Bob Malley. Perhaps he'll see true value in his new purchase. I can hope someone with real experience in restaurant management, living in Western Michigan knocks on his door with a serious proposal to realize Jerry's original concept. I know for certain that the market exists and that money can be made. Jerry proved that.
However, my twenty years immersed in this topic has left me jaded. Out of the precious few who understand the potential of Jerry Berta's legacy, a mere fraction have the resources, and a smaller number still have the passion to make it happen. If you haven't had the pleasure of seeing Diner World in its prime, you have truly missed something. I doubt we'll ever see it again.
Will someone, please, please prove me wrong?